This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile, but have been saving for a weekend that I didn’t have any new events to write about. Well, that weekend has come, so here is my first post comparing some of the differences between Japan and America. This time, it’s about schools!
#1: No shoes allowed! Yes, in schools, as in homes, you take off your shoes in the lowered part of the entry way, stepping up onto the main floor before putting on your indoor shoes. That means that when we American teachers visit elementary schools for our morning classes, we have to tote our indoor shoes with us. Slippers are provided for guests, but it’s really not all that comfortable to scuff around school in a pair of slippers. Just sayin’.
#2: Ritualized greetings. There are ritualized phrases for everything here. When we first arrive at school and step into our office, we greet those inside with a cheerful Ohayou gozaimasu (“good morning”). When we leave mid-morning to go teach at the elementary schools, we say Itte kimasu (“we’re leaving and coming back”) and receive the response of Itte irrasshai (“go and come back”). When we come back after our lunch break, we use Konnichiwa (“good afternoon”) to greet our coworkers again. When we leave at the end of the day, we say to those left in the office Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu (“excuse me for leaving before you”). The usual response is Otsukaresama deshita (“good work” – or, more literally – “you must be tired”).
When you walk into an office that’s not your own, the rules change. That means, every time you step into or out of the office, you have to excuse yourself. Therefore, at the elementary schools we visit, when we go into the principal’s office to visit over a cup of coffee before starting classes, we say Shitsurei shimasu (“excuse my rudeness”) when entering and Shitsurei shimashita (“excuse my past rudeness”) when leaving. The teachers who pop in to go over our lesson plans with us, and the students who come in to pick us up, also abide by the same rules. In other words, there’s a lot of excusing going on. But it’s all a part of the unique culture of politeness.
#3: Ritualized cleaning. First of all, Japanese schools have no janitors. Well, I’m not sure about no janitors, but I know that students and teachers do some of the cleaning. At the school where I work, we have someone who does a lot of the cleaning, but the other teachers chip in as well. (Students don’t clean at our school because it’s just an after-school program.) On the mornings that we don’t have as many elementary school classes to teach, we American teachers help with the cleaning, too! Usually, the task assigned to us is cleaning windows. The classrooms all have sliding doors with windows on at least one side of the room, so there are a lot of windows to clean. It doesn’t matter whether the windows are clean or dirty – on our days to clean them (usually once or twice a week), we clean them! The mentality seems to be that there is a time for doing certain things, and during that time – you do them.
#4: School lunches. Obviously, there aren’t school lunches at the after-school program where I work. In fact, I haven’t been to any at the elementary schools, either. But we have eaten lunch with the kindergartners a few times. At the kindergarten, they bring their own rice, and then each get a small tray of food to accompany it – usually meat, vegetables, a small piece of fruit, etc. The bento boxes (lunch boxes) here are the cutest things imaginable – some are double decker, and include space in the lid for a fork, spoon, and/or chopsticks.
#5: Cold water, no soap. Ah yes, public restrooms. Although the toilets can be high-tech (the one that I used in the mall yesterday made running water sounds when I sat down), the washing facilities are not what I’m used to in the States. There is often only cold running water, and many times there is no soap. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen paper towels, and hand dryers are rare. In other words, you’re responsible for figuring out how to get the water off your own hands. Generally, I believe people keep a personal towel or tissues with them. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten into the habit of it, so sometimes I end up shaking off the water and patting my hands on my pants. Also, my school, being small, has a restroom more like a private bathroom than a public one – which means I have to change out of my shoes and into bathroom slippers before entering! Keeping the dirt compartmentalized is what it’s all about!
#6: Lack of adult supervision. This aspect of Japanese schools has probably been the most surprising to me. After being part of an American school culture that requires constant supervision of all children at all times, it’s a little strange for me to see children with no adult present. Of course, there are always teachers around, but it’s not a given that there will always be a teacher supervising students. For example, at the kindergarten where I work, students often will be playing in the halls with no adult in sight; and at the elementary schools, we will occasionally walk into a classroom where the students are waiting for us without a teacher present. It’s different from what I’m used to, but in some ways I like that the students can be more independent.
Well, that’s the end of my recap of some of the differences that I’ve found between Japanese and American schools. If there are any topics you’d like to see in future Japan vs. America posts, leave me a comment!